Deciding to learn: modulation of learning flights in honeybees, Apis mellifera
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Upon discovering new sources of food, honeybees and other insects perform learning flights to memorize visual landmarks that can guide their return. Learning flights are longest following initial visits to the food and subsequently decline in duration, which suggests that the investment in learning results from an active decision modulated by a bee's accumulating experience. We document various factors that influence this decision: (1) learning flights reappear when experienced bees encounter a delay in finding food at a familiar place and the durations of such "reorientation flights" increase with the length of the delay; (2) the decay in learning flight duration over visits following such reorientation flights is more rapid than following initial discovery of the food; (3) learning flight duration increases with the visual complexity of the scene surrounding the food, and when spatial relationships among landmarks are unstable; and (4) durations of learning flights at a new feeding place are influenced by the sucrose concentration in the food. Taken together, these experiments suggest that bees can adjust their learning efforts in response to changing needs for visual information and that both sources of spatial uncertainty and the quality of the food influence the value of such information.
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